High tech farming, local food systems, food aid, or strict environmental regulation? How the American dust bowl can teach us to deal with drought

Produced as part of the Adaptation to climate change and human development CCCEP research programme theme

Abstract of Working Paper 110

This paper examines responses to the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s as a way of exploring how society today may be able to respond to today’s droughts and pending “food crises”.

With regards the debate over solutions to the Dust Bowl, four broad themes emerge.

First, some argued that solutions would be found by engineers and farmers who would develop new ways of watering dry fields.

A second group believed that inappropriate political and economic incentives had led to the bad farming practices that caused wide-spread erosion. To this group, the best solutions were managerial and included governmental regulation of farm management.

A third group focused on the welfare of individuals, arguing that creating a social safety net to protect marginalised families was the highest priority.

Finally, there were commentators who advocated for communitarian, local, and ecological food systems.

Today, the situation is similar in that many commentators believe that climate change will render many of the world’s food producing regions unproductive and this may trigger mass migration and widespread poverty.

Today, as well, the same four perspectives are present and many commentators disagree on whether we should rely on technological, local, managerial or welfare based solutions.

Exploring the similarity of the discourses between today’s food crisis and the one that hit American society 80 years ago reveals that advocates of the four different camps are motivated by very different principles.

Briefly, proponents of technological solutions base many of their arguments on the assumption that human ingenuity is capable of producing extremely productive food systems. The managerial arguments, by contrast, are based on the idea that the natural environment can be rationally and efficiently managed using scientific principles. The social welfare narrative is based on the assumption that it is our collective responsibility to protect the poor and marginalised. Finally, the communitarian narrative argues that local food sovereignty is a prerequisite for sustainable food systems.

The primary contribution this paper make, therefore, is to expose these deeply held ontological tensions as a way of arguing that policy makers today must de-politicise arguments and use elements of all four narratives when designing programs to ensure we do not face a repeat of the crisis of the 1930s.